This is the archive of 2021 District Matters, a column penned by the Leader of Stratford-on-Avon District Council, Councillor Tony Jefferson.
Please note: these columns have previously been published in the Stratford Herald newspaper.
Got a question for Councillor Jefferson? You can get in touch via Ask the Leader.
There can only be one major item for this Leader's Column. That is the historic vote on Monday in favour of merging with Warwick District Council to create a South Warwickshire District Council.
The next stage is for a submission to be made to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities seeking agreement to this change. Assuming this consent is granted, this will eventually bring to an end Stratford-on-Avon District Council after almost 50 years, I think it is reasonable to call it ‘historic'.
What was refreshing about the vote was that it had cross party support with twenty six councillors voting in favour with only three opposed and two abstentions. The vote was taken in what we all believe to be in the best interests of all the residents of South Warwickshire. It would be fair to say that many Councillors had understandable reservations. Nevertheless, they recognised that the balance of advantage lay with supporting the merger.
This decision is an appropriate strategic response to the challenges we face as a Council. Residents will be aware of the challenges we face because I have outlined them in this column a number of times. Indeed, as Covid-19 is not going away, these challenges may well intensify. I should stress that the merger is not a ‘magic bullet' solution for everything.
The intended merger is not just about financial issues; there are some real opportunities to be gained from it. The new South Warwickshire District Council will have almost 300,000 residents. It will be one of the biggest district councils in the country, larger than many current unitary councils. The experience elsewhere has been that this will provide a platform for a much stronger voice and for greater influence in important bodies. In our case, the obvious ones are the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership and the West Midlands Combined Authority and there will be a number of others. The intended merger will also give us a stronger voice and influence with Central Government. These may appear intangible benefits to many residents, but they really do matter and they can make a real difference on major issues.
One very tangible benefit will be that the new Council will inherit a Housing Revenue Account. This means that we can build houses on our own account. This should help increase the supply of affordable housing that is much needed.
It has taken a lot of work and negotiation to reach this stage. It has put additional demands, not only on myself, but also on all members of Cabinet and the senior management team. The alignment of us all behind this being the best solution to the challenges facing us does, I think, speak volumes.
Unfortunately for us the hard work is far from over. We will now have to tackle the detailed work that will be needed to ensure that we achieve the resolution we would prefer to some of the outstanding issues. The number of Councillors for the new District is probably the most contentious. This is not something that is ours to decide. It will be decided on by discussion and negotiation with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. A strong level of cross party support will be helpful in this process.
So, we are at the beginning of a new era, one that we approach with optimism. Whilst we are excited by the future potential, routine work has to continue. The main challenge at the moment is putting together the budget for 2022/23 and Medium Term Financial Plan. The first draft of this will be completed before Christmas.
All of us, all those Councillors and officers who have been heavily involved in the merger process so far, are looking forward to a well-earned break so that refreshed we can hit the ground running and deal with all the challenges the New Year will inevitably bring.
All that remains, is for me to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I hope you all stay safe over the festive season.
It was extremely disappointing that we did not succeed in our bid for levelling up fund money for the World Shakespeare Centre. Indeed, neither bid for Stratford was successful. As I write this we have not yet had feedback so that we can understand the reasons. It would be unfortunate if the underlying reason is that, because we are seen as a prosperous area, we are somehow less deserving, despite the quality and positive benefits of our proposals.
It is interesting, therefore, that the picture now emanating from the Department for Levelling Up has shifted from wholesale changes to the structure of local government to an increased focus on levelling up and economic development. This is perhaps unsurprising for two reasons. The first is that the initial attempts at local government reorganisation do not appear to have gone down well in the areas affected. Indeed, Cumbria has commenced a judicial review of the decision. The second reason is that the Government may have noticed our abysmal economic performance since the financial crisis and that the forecasts beyond 2022 show a continuation of that performance. I think this shift in emphasis is extremely welcome. I understand that there will now be a more pragmatic approach to any proposals for local government reorganisation. The merger we are proposing with Warwick District Council will fit squarely into that category.
As a relatively small organisation, however, we cannot have substantial direct effect on our own on the nation's rate of economic growth. That said, we take the issue very seriously and do everything we can to encourage growth locally. A couple of weeks ago I was invited to Ironbridge to see the demonstrator of the Very Light Rail Project. This uses leading edge technologies that make rail solutions much more affordable. As the name ‘Very Light Rail' suggests, it is lighter than current trains, so the tracks it runs on need less robust foundations. The University of Warwick is one of the consortium members. Although I had to travel to Ironbridge to see the demonstrator in action, it was actually built at Long Marston. Revolution VLR, the firm developing it, is based in Stratford-upon-Avon. Also being developed at Long Marston is a prototype hydrogen train which we saw demonstrated before the Covid-19 pandemic. Both of these innovative initiatives will create ‘green' jobs and will provide more sustainable solutions for rail travel.
Where the very light rail solution may be very useful locally, is in providing a cost effective solution for a rail link between Long Marston and Honeybourne. A heavy rail solution is simply uneconomic. This potential will be explored in the South Warwickshire Plan currently being developed.
We also meet every month with the CWLEP Growth Hub's contact for Stratford District. This meeting keeps us in touch with the issues facing businesses in the District. Indeed, for the latest grant funding we have available, we are using the Growth Hub to help us allocate funding to where it will have the most beneficial impact. There is no point trying to reinvent the wheel when skills and knowledge already exist elsewhere.
My colleague, Matt Jennings, recently organised a jobs fair at the Stratford Playhouse where over 50 organisations from all over the District exhibited. This event was attended by over 200 people and attracted lots of positive media coverage, both nationally and internationally (BBC Overseas radio did a piece for the US market!). It got the message out that, not only is Stratford District open for business and welcoming back tourists, it is also prepared to look at innovative ways to make a difference. During one of a number of interviews, Matt was asked what would need to happen for the jobs fair to be considered a success? His answer was that, if it helped steer one person in a positive career direction, it would have been worthwhile. Matt was contacted by one of the exhibitors the following day to inform him that he had made three job offers that had been accepted, all to individuals who had been long term unemployed.
More than 11% of the exhibitors had been able to recruit staff as a result of attending the jobs fair and 33% were still following up leads. This was an excellent initiative which we will look to expand next year.
We certainly do live in volatile and uncertain times. Recent weeks seem to have delivered a never ending stream of difficult issues. One of which, the soaring price of energy, appears to me to be at least in part the result of a failure to have a robust energy policy and set of strategies that would give us a reliable energy supply that would keep our lights on. Our energy infrastructure is far more fragile than most people realise. Our fleet of nuclear power stations is ageing rapidly and most will cease operation within the next decade. This has been tediously predictable for a long time. The North Sea oil and gas fields have been in decline for decades and the infrastructure is also ageing. Ageing infrastructure has a bad habit of being less reliable. We have allowed our main gas storage facility to be closed. Furthermore, we have invested heavily in renewable energy, one of the key features of which is its variability in supply.
Most of this was predictable well over a decade ago, yet the issues were kicked down the road. The difficulty with that approach is that the road finally runs out and there are no cheap, quick fix solutions. The investment needed to ensure that we have a reliable supply of energy will be huge. Some of it, like nuclear power, will be controversial. So will the idea of needing gas, a fossil fuel, well into the future. The choice, however, is pretty straightforward; it's either nuclear and into the medium term gas, or the lights go out from time to time. I will reprise what I said in my last column. People don't like uncomfortable reality and they do not like having to make tough choices. Leadership means making it very clear what the reality is and spelling out the tough choices that need to be made. The longer the can is kicked down the road, the greater the likely disruption and the more expensive the solution.
Where all this has resonance locally is with the South Warwickshire Local Plan we are developing. The Plan will run to 2050. For most people, this is far into the future. The ramifications of the Plan, however, will last far longer. For example, houses built in 2030 will last well into the next century. Because of climate change, we can no longer assume that the world will remain the same. Far too many people see climate change solely in terms of mitigation. As the Environment Agency, however, put it in its report last week: “Limiting carbon emissions is the most effective way to combat climate change, but while mitigation might save the planet, it is adaptation, preparing for climate shocks, that will save millions of lives. Choosing one over the other on the basis of a simple either/or calculation is like telling a bird it only needs one wing to fly,…"
(Living better with a Changing Climate; The Environment Agency October 2021)
This is why we have asked the Met Office to create a scenario on the impact of a 3 degree increase in temperature on the District. This may well be the reality, even if many people will be reluctant to accept it. We are determined to base our plans on what we see as a very plausible, and increasingly likely, reality. That will mean some tough choices about where development can take place. We are also focussing on the long term. So, for example, because the Wellesbourne Campus will be one of the main engines of growth and prosperity in South Warwickshire, we want to make sure that its development and growth is not constrained for the next fifty years. There are times when one simply has to take a long-term view to secure the future of our District.
This is perhaps a real reflection on how the role of a councillor has changed. We now not only have to deal with the immediate and the local, we have to deal with shaping the future for generations to come in an increasingly complex world.
One final point, we are about to embark on the budget setting process for the period 2022/23 to 2026/27. We have to do this secure in the knowledge that we will not be informed of the settlement from Central Government until mid-December. Even then we will only get a settlement for one year. The merger we are seeking with Warwick District puts us in a better place to manage this nonsensical situation.
We have now started the consultation exercise with residents to receive their views on our proposed merger with Warwick District Council to create a South Warwickshire Council. The consultation process conforms to best professional standards. Its methodology is established and has been proven to be robust. Why would we do anything else?
There are two points that I think need to be clear in residents' minds;
Sorry to be so stark but this is the reality we all face. Indeed, we are facing a perfect storm of the things most people find hard with which to come to terms:
My view has always been that we have to face up to the difficult issues in front of us. We have to understand, as best we can, the issues coming down the track and provide leadership that shapes our future to give the best outcome for us all. The alternative is to bury our heads in the sand, pretend it will all go away and then wonder why we end up losing out.
There is, allegedly, an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times." Well we certainly do and there is no prospect of escape.
Now for some good news. By August the number of cars in our car parks had exceeded 2019 levels. People are still being attracted to Stratford town. This is good news for all the businesses in tourism, hospitality and retail, for the people they employ and for the businesses that provide services to them. It is not surprising that key shops wish to remain in the town centre and others are seeking to move in. There are still many vacant shops but, given the scale of the downturn, that should not be surprising.
After the fire at the Ettington recycling centre, Biffa had caught up on all the collection rounds by Friday 13 August. They had introduced four extra rounds so that many people would not have had service from their usual crews which, I believe, has resulted in some collections hiccups. Having caught up in such a short space of time, however, was quite a staggering achievement. We are now operating with only three extra collection rounds.
The challenge we now have is to find a less expensive option to the emergency approach we have had to put in place immediately after the fire. This is far from easy because there is very limited spare operational capacity at the moment across the recycling industry.
On Monday 6 September, The Cabinet agreed to two investments in the future; first, £4.5 million for the purchase of refuse vehicles and food caddies for the new waste contract and, second, £3.1 million for investment in our leisure centres as part of the new leisure contract. These investment decisions still need approval by full Council. There are sound financial reasons for these decisions because, as a local authority, we can borrow money at a lower interest rate than can private sector companies. It is more cost effective for us to buy the vehicles. By investing in the leisure centres we not only provide a better service to residents, we also recoup the investment through the fees paid to us by the operator.
Life continues to be busy. Dull moments are both rare and treasured.
Life has been very interesting since my last Leader's column, by which I really mean fraught. The fire at the recycling centre at Ettington has caused us a massive amount of work and a lot of headaches. It is well worth restating some of the basics. Stratford District Council outsources its waste collection contract to Biffa; in turn Biffa outsources the recycling to Pure, the operator of the Ettington site. This means that there are two contracts between the parties involved. This will be a bonus for lawyers.
From our point of view, as a District Council, the overwhelming priority was to get the recycling service back up and running. This meant that we had to take the initiative to finding a solution quickly without sending material either to landfill or to incineration. We were successful in doing that and only lost eight days of collections.
The solution that is currently in place, however, is only a temporary one for three months. It is also very expensive, something those few people who ask for a refund may wish to contemplate. Operationally, the solution is far more challenging because it involves lorries travelling greater distances to sites to deposit the recycling they have collected.
We are now actively working on a longer term, and hopefully cheaper, solution to come into effect in November.
Just to complicate matters ever so slightly, together with Warwick District Council, SDC is in the process of negotiating a new waste contract to commence in July 2022. We are also a member of the partnership that is building a new Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) in Coventry. This should come on stream at the end of the second quarter 2023. Given the aftershocks of Covid-19 for building materials supply chains, this may well be late. The intention had been that between July 2022 and the MRF coming on stream, recycling would be done at the Ettington site. So, the upshot is that we need a solution, or solutions, that take us through to end of 2023, without costing a massive amount. Life never seems to be easy.
Since putting the contract with Biffa in place six years ago, the whole waste and recycling market has changed massively. Disposing of waste has become much more expensive. Residents have been protected from this for the duration of the current contract.
There is some good news though. Amazon is opening its site on the boundary with Stratford District at Redditch. Recruitment for about 500 jobs begins this month. Ideally, Amazon likes to recruit people from within a fifteen mile radius. This will provide job opportunities for residents in the Studley, Alcester and Bidford areas. This project has been in the pipeline for over three years. It demonstrates just how long it can take for the efforts on inward investment to pay dividends.
Meanwhile, on the Wellesbourne campus, Group Lotus has now established its Advanced Technology Centre and will initially employ 130 engineers. This facility represents a new partnership between Group Lotus and Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick. Lotus Engineering, the consultancy division of Group Lotus, will also be based there. There will be the capacity for many new jobs as the facility expands.
Here's what they said about moving into the District: “The new Lotus Advanced Technology Centre is located on the University of Warwick's Wellesbourne Campus, and has been established in partnership with WMG at the University of Warwick. The new facility allows Lotus to further strengthen their unique capabilities by attracting and retaining the highest calibre employees from the Midlands area. With close links to the Headquarters in Hethel, the new facility gives Lotus an additional delivery capability for their sports car programmes and a more central engineering offering close to their key engineering customers. The substantial facility consists of offices, workshops and laboratories with ample space for expansion."
I visited Group Lotus at its headquarters at Hethel in Norfolk last month and met, amongst other senior staff, the CEO. They were extremely positive about their future in Wellesbourne. I should add that since becoming Leader, we have developed a close and productive working relationship with the University of Warwick.
The inward investment of firms such as Amazon and Group Lotus add to the job opportunities for residents of the District. This underpins and potentially enhances the prosperity of the District. It also enables us to look to the economic future of the District with greater confidence as we emerge from the dark shadow of Covid-19.
One of the aspects of my role that is both challenging and interesting is economic development within the District. This involves taking a long term and strategic view. The downside is that people do not see immediate benefits. Too many people, however, believe that economic growth just happens and that we can remain prosperous without working hard at it. Ensuring that the District remains prosperous takes a great deal of effort. If a point was reached where the District was desperate for investment in growth, it would be too late. Recovering from a weakened position is never easy; it is far better to work to maintain growth from a position of strength.
As a District we have many advantages, not least of which are the skills and capabilities of our people. As it is also a very pleasant place to live, the District is a very attractive to which professional people want to move. We also have a lot of space. After all, Stratford-on-Avon District is 48% of the area of Warwickshire. From my perspective, we need to capitalise on those advantages. This means a lot of networking based around our membership of Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnerships (CWLEP) and the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). We did have a meeting with the CEO of the WMCA Growth Company recently during which he observed that he had not fully appreciated the scale of the opportunities in Stratford-on-Avon District. It is vital to ensure we are clearly on the radar of these organisations.
These activities are, I feel, extremely important for our future. Aspects of the role as an effective Leader of the Council are, however, somewhat removed from public view. This is not deliberate; it's just the way it is.
It is also why, as a Council, we are investing time and effort in the World Shakespeare Centre project. This will, I hope, be a massive project that will deliver benefits towards the end of this decade. In the short term, assuming we are successful, it will send a signal that there is serious investment in the future of both the town of Stratford-upon-Avon and of the wider District as a whole. This may well encourage other businesses to invest now for future benefits. This initiative may also attract retailers and hotels to the town. Both are needed if the High Street generally is to be regenerated.
Of course, it is not only the tourist industry into which the Council is seeking to encourage investment, important though that is. I am very excited by the potential of the Wellesbourne Campus of the University of Warwick. As part of my role as Leader of the Council, I am expected to meet with potential investors. What has struck me as fascinating is how pleased they are to see the Leader of the Council at meetings. I keep pushing the message that the District is open for business and that we will do whatever we can to help them. Obviously, our support will be within the rules and frameworks within which we have to operate. Nevertheless, this proactive attitude and the personal contact is important in attracting investment into South Warwickshire. It is, however, fairly time-consuming.
I expect that some of the time and effort that I along with a number of others have been expending in recent months will begin to bear fruit over the next few months.
Now for a very different topic; climate change has been very much in the news lately, notably the extreme weather in Canada and the western USA. I will reiterate what I have said many times, I think that the impacts of climate change will be far greater and come far faster than most people imagine. We will not be able to stop some very substantial impacts, although we may still be able to contribute to the avoidance of a complete disaster. As a nation we are, nevertheless, going to have to adapt to a very different climate and more extreme weather events. Again, we are taking a strategic and long-term view. We have engaged with the Meteorological Office to understand the implications of a 3 degree and 4 degree overall increase in temperature for us in South Warwickshire. The Council can then make informed and pragmatic decisions on what it can do to cope with climate change as it directly affects us all.
This is all part of our overall approach to be strategic, to base our actions on the best evidence available and to face issues head on. I say that expecting that the results of the Meteorological Office's work will not make comfortable reading. We have a responsibility, I believe, to provide stewardship for our District and to our residents, not only in the here and now but also into the future.
As I write this column on the 12th June, it appears very likely that the current Covid arrangements will probably be extended for a month. I think this is disappointing, but understandable. However, I think that this will be the last time any delay will be acceptable to most people. There really does come a time when we all have to realise that we are going to have to live with Covid.
Residents may remember that the Local Government Boundary Commission initiated a review of Ward boundaries and councillor numbers some time ago. The Council will submit its proposals this week; however the final decision rests with the Boundaries Commission not the Council. Whatever shape the Ward boundaries take, there will be 41 councillors. This is a fair refection of the increasing numbers of people in the District and the increasing workload on Councillors. What is very clear from the intensive discussions we have had on our proposals, is that there is no ‘magic bullet' solution that will please everyone. What was also apparent was the immense amount of work officers had to put in to develop our proposals.
Work has continued on two major contracts that the Council has to let. The contract for the provision of leisure services is almost completed, indeed by the time you read this it may have been signed. There is also the process for letting the waste and recycling collection contract. The procurement exercise has been undertaken jointly with Warwick District Council. This is a very large contract across South Warwickshire initially running for 10 years. Doing a joint procurement with Warwick means that we should be able to get better terms than procuring separately.
To enable the procurement of a joint contact Warwick and Stratford Districts have aligned their waste and recycling collection approach as from the start of the new contract on 1st August 2022.
Just as we think everything is running relatively smoothly, central government announce a consultation on a review of waste and recycling provision. Their proposals have been greeted with almost universal hostility by all the councils responsible for waste and recycling. There are estimates that this will cost an additional £680m a year. Given the way central government works, council taxpayers (in other words, us) will have to bear the additional costs. Actually, the usual wheeze is to provide ‘transitional' funding which rapidly evaporates. (All governments use this approach, not just the current one.)
Meanwhile, our proposed merger with Warwick District proceeds. As anyone who has ever been through mergers or takeovers will tell you progress is never as smooth as one would wish but these are challenges we have to meet and surmount.
Indeed, as we look forward then, the rationale behind the proposed merger probably becomes stronger. In December, we expect to get a four year funding settlement from government, we do not expect this to be generous. In other words the squeeze on local councils will be more pronounced. There also appears to be inflation pressures building up which only adds to the squeeze.
When these pressures are combined with the, as yet unknown, impacts of the Covid pandemic on tax revenues you will appreciate that we are constantly monitoring possible threats. We are being extremely pragmatic and realistic and we are prepared to act as soon as we have greater clarity.
These really are challenging times. However, as I said in last month's column: ‘it demonstrates the critical importance of having a good team. This applies to both officers and my Cabinet colleagues.'
To end on some really good news; BEIS has just released a league table on the Restart Grant Scheme. Based on 309 councils, Stratford were 22nd on the list having paid just over 90%. This is a tribute to the performance of our Council.
It has been an interesting time since my last Leader's Column. We have had elections and, on a personal note, I have had a hip replaced. One of the key features on being out of action for a few weeks is that it demonstrates the critical importance of having a good team. This applies to both officers and my Cabinet colleagues. Over the past two years we really have built up a good team spirit and a very effective way of working together. This delivers real benefits when we hit crises, as we did with Covid-19, or when someone is out of action for a few weeks due to illness.
I am not going to say anything about the local election results. I do, however, want to point out the amount of effort the District Council had to put in to running the elections in the context of the Covid pandemic. Planning started months before the election. All polling stations had to be made as secure as possible from transmission. Some polling stations previously used could not be adapted and therefore could not be used. The election and count required over 500 staff (520 in total), 65 additional members of staff were employed to assist with social distancing measures at all of the larger polling stations, which was an additional requirement to usual. The fact that they will run smoothly is taken for granted. To the vast majority of people, the planning and effort is invisible.
I now need to look at the challenges facing us as a District. Far and away the main one is going to be economic recovery and regeneration. It is worth remembering that we were considered to be the fourth hardest hit local authority area in the country, and the worst hit in the West Midlands. The local data appear to bear this out. Last year, at the peak of the pandemic's impact, over 40% of our working population was either unemployed, on furlough or on self-employment income support scheme. In February/ March this year the proportion of our working population needing government support was still over 30%.
People question why we are not seeking government funding for investment in our town. This is not, however, quite as straightforward as people may believe. There are criteria to be met and the government's bidding process is competitive. In other words, there is a lot of preparatory work to be done, that has been underway for some time. What we also need to do is build support for our submission when it is made. Initial work on this started months ago. As the case for our submission is assembled, this will move to a whole new level and it will be one of my priorities over the next few weeks.
The Riverside Project was original driven and supported by the CWLEP. It is intended to improve access to open space and Stratford's river frontage and to add to the footfall to the town from residents and visitors, thereby adding to the town centre level of activity.
When lockdown was relaxed last year, we saw that people flocked to the open spaces of the recreation ground and Bancroft Gardens. Part of the intention of the Riverside Project is to capitalise on this. For many people it appears easy to forget that tourism brings about £500 million a year into the District (2019 estimates) and supports some 9,000 local jobs. Without tourists we would not have the range of shops, restaurants and facilities that we all enjoy. Indeed the £1.5 million grant we got from CWLEP will benefit both tourists and residents. We need the recovery to enable the more than 30% of the District's residents on government support schemes to return to work. I know people on furlough who are increasingly apprehensive about the future.
As we are entrusted with the leadership of the District, we have a responsibility to ALL residents, which very definitely includes the 30%.
We have listened to feedback and have made significant changes to the proposals for the Riverside Project as a result. We are seeking to balance the economic regeneration factors with the biodiversity and environmental aspects. It is far too easy for some people to be single minded. As the Leadership Team of the District, we have to consider a wider and much more nuanced perspective and responsibility.
It's been a year since Covid-19 hit. The last year can easily be described as fraught with lots of ups and downs. Now, however, we can I think, see that the end of the worst is in sight. In Stratford-on-Avon District all our metrics looked good before the schools returned:
(Data as published 15/03/20210)
This is a tribute to the hard work put in by everyone involved, and perhaps, especially the volunteers who have played an important role in enabling us to deliver such a good outcome.
The very latest numbers, as I write, indicate that there is a blip developing with numbers increasing. This is almost certainly due to the schools returning. I hope it is short-lived.
Meanwhile, work continues on other issues. The proposed merger with Warwick District is making further progress. We now have five management team posts shared jointly with Warwick District:
I think it is fair to say that a lot has been achieved in a short time, despite having to work under Covid-19 restrictions. We are all aware that there is still a long way to go and a lot of hard work yet to do. Many of the issues were picked up in the intensive debate at the last Full Council meeting. The bottom line is though, whatever the difficulties, is this the best option? Council members, with one exception, appeared to think it was.
Also agreed at the last Full Council was the investment of £8million in a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF), this is a joint enterprise by eight local authorities. The total cost is £58.4 million. The waste and recycling landscape has changed massively over the past few years and we estimated that, had we not participated in this venture, we could have been exposed to extra costs of up to £1million a year.
It is worth commenting that the decisions Councillors and Council have to take are getting increasingly substantial and significant. This is unlikely to change. Indeed, what I see already coming down the track are a whole series of big issues requiring a lot of work. Some of these represent significant opportunities for our District. As we are a relatively small organisation, this means that we have to be very careful how we use our scarce resources. If the expertise and knowledge lies elsewhere, say Warwickshire County Council, then it is best that they do the work, assuming that it has not already been done. There is absolutely no point in reinventing wheels. This has nothing to do with whether an issue is important or not, it is simply about the best use of resources.
There are some exciting opportunities taking shape in the background, which are taking up a lot of time and effort but which will be very positive for our District. As I am sure you will understand, these have to reach a final point of agreement before they can be made public. However, what we are working on in the background gives me cautious optimism, and perhaps even a degree of excitement, for the medium and longer term future of our District.
So, hopefully, in the coming months I will have good news to impart.
The Leader takes a look at the past year and the impact of COVID-19 on the District
(Additional post from the Leader not published in the Stratford Herald)
Covid has impacted every individual, every household and every business across the UK – and my only hope is that we are on the home straight to emerging from what has been an horrific 12 months.
The Council, from an operational and organisational point of view, has had to transform how it works.
To all intents and purposes, we moved most of the operations out of our office in the early days so that the vast majority of people are working remotely although that has clearly varied depending on the lockdowns.
We put in all the technology to allow that to happen and that operation was completed very quickly and efficiently which really aided our push to help businesses as soon as the first major lockdown was announced.
The distribution of grants has been a massive operation and, to date, we have paid out more than £40 million in support.
More often than not, local authorities are the collectors of funds so to flip to being a giver rather than a taker has been quite a change. Also, because of the nature of the pandemic, some of the guidance has been very late arriving and that has caused complications.
The grants team has done a superb job, working around the clock and we have had very positive feedback. The officers have fully grasped that, in many cases, the funding has been a lifeline to businesses and they had to deal with some really upsetting stories from people. We have worked very closely with the CWLEP Growth Hub and that has helped a seamless delivery.
We have maintained most of our services while stepping up environmental health guidance and checks which is vital with businesses having to adapt to a whole new level of safety.
The local economy has been very hard hit – by some estimates – the fourth hardest hit in the country, and easily the worst hit in the West Midlands.
That is down to a combination of factors. Our economy is very reliant on hospitality and the automotive industry with Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin both in the district.
People often don't think of Stratford as being an industrial area, but that presence at Gaydon means it is a major pillar of our local economy.
The town of Stratford has been a vastly different place in which to live in the last year. The High Street across the UK has, as everyone knows, taken a massive hit and we, along with most other urban centres, have seen an increase in empty shops.
Between lockdowns a lot of people came to the town to use our open spaces by the river but that did not translate into people coming into the town centre and spending money.
I just hope that when the roadmap to lockdown lifting is announced by Government, we have absolute clarity. We certainly cannot afford another lockdown for economic and human reasons.
I think this latest lockdown has proved more difficult for people. It is one thing going into a Spring lockdown for what you think will be a short time period, but – economically and mentally – it is an entirely different matter still being in the same situation a year later.
There is pressure for a wholesale lift of lockdown but the important thing, even if this takes a little longer, is that this is the last one.
As people will know we are working increasingly closely with Warwick District and that has been moving along well. These moves were important before Covid and are even more sensible in light of the battering local authority financing has taken over the last 12 months.
On a personal level, like everyone else, I have found this very tough. Firstly, I picked up the virus which really knocked me about for a couple of weeks back in the Spring, but, in common with others in business, I have found the constant online meetings very draining.
I think most businesses and organisations have risen to the challenge of keeping going during the pandemic and accelerated change which was coming down the line, but I sense that people are very weary now of the online nature of working from home.
Looking ahead six months, I sincerely hope that we are well clear of lockdown and returning to normality. Locally, more than anything, I would like to see tourists returning safely to our area and stimulating the recovering of our hospitality and retail business.
It has been a long and arduous effort to get through what has been a dreadful and, for many, a tragic, time but hopefully as vaccination levels rise, our knowledge of this awful virus grows and the weather starts to rise, the light at the end of the Covid tunnel will become larger and brighter.
We have just had the figures released that confirm we have had the deepest recession in 300 years. Whilst people will have noticed the impact of the restrictions due to Covid-19, the economic consequences may not have impacted. The reason for this is simple, the UK government will have borrowed over £400 billion in 2020/21 and pushed government debt to over £2.1 trillion. Almost everything that could be subsidised has been subsidised, despite this, many people have fallen through the cracks.
When the subsidies end, and they will end, expecting them to be permanent is a fantasy, then a very different picture will emerge. There will be very clear ‘winners' and equally clear ‘losers'. An over simplification would be that the winners will be those people in professional jobs who can work from home and pensioners, particularly those on index linked final salary pension schemes. The losers are likely to be those whose jobs require face-to-face contact and the young who find opportunities much reduced.
Across our District both categories are well represented, we have many people who are professional and many people who are retired. However, the industries worst hit by the pandemic are those in the service sector, hospitality, retail, arts and entertainment. There are many jobs in our District dependent on those industries and this is manifest in the figures for unemployment, now over 5,000 and those on furlough, now around 8,000.
Recovery in these industries will be far from swift, tourism, one of the main drivers of activity in these sectors will take time to recover. Indeed many commentators expect that, as government support is withdrawn many companies that have been kept on life support will sadly just disappear. I have seen estimates as high as 1 in 7 and I'm afraid that things could get worse before they get better.
I am already beginning to detect some resentment by the ‘losers' against those they see as protected. This is low key and not yet widespread, but it could easily grow. This is one of the main reasons I am focussing a lot of time and effort on economic regeneration and also looking at ways to create a level playing field in terms of fairness.
One of the things that I find surprising is how many people seem to think that economic growth just happens and we do not need to work at it. There also appears to be a view that it is not a major agenda item. I think people need to be very clear that without economic growth, the jobs and prosperity it brings, the choices we would have to make as a society would become much more constricted and much starker. I suspect that many of the people would not want to have to make stark choices.
We have, at the moment, three exciting projects underway which are designed to help the economic regeneration of our District, create jobs and help the High Street recover. To illustrate how long it can take to bring these projects to fruition we have been working on one of them for almost three years.
One of the other factors that surprises me is how many residents, particularly of Stratford-upon-Avon itself appear to resent tourists. This is a tourist town; tourism is our second biggest industry, worth £500 million a year in normal times. It supports about 9,000 jobs, so is not surprising 8,000 people are furloughed. It enables us to have a retail offering and a choice of restaurants and facilities that would not normally be found in a town of this size. Without tourists our prosperity would be much diminished.
I sometimes get a sense that far too many people think we can have it all. That is a nice fantasy and in the past year that fantasy has been underpinned by the government borrowing £400 billion and providing an immense amount of support to a great many individuals and businesses. As a Council we have paid out well over £40 million to local businesses which has provided an invaluable lifeline.
We are now reaching a point in time where we will have to start thinking about all members of society and how we create a future where there are not 5,000 unemployed and 8,000 people on furlough. However, the success of the incredible vaccine rollout across our District and further afield is starting to give us hope of some return to normality ahead, but with it is likely to come a reduction in government support which will bring a new set of challenges we will need to face to ensure our District recovers for the benefit of everyone.
A belated Happy New Year, such as it is. 2021 has started with a mixture of trepidation, another lock down and rocketing infections and hope as the vaccines are rolled out. We have the added complication of the trade deal with the EC which has increased the pressure on businesses. Stratford District and Stratford Town in particular has been very hard hit by the impact on tourism.
So, against a background of uncertainty we are in the midst of the budget process. I have to stress that we do not have complete freedom in setting our budget. We can only increase our council tax by £5 on a Band D house. We have to keep a minimum £2.5 million in the general reserve over the Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP) period up to 2025/26.
We have to set our budget and MTFP against the backcloth of tremendous uncertainty. We have estimated that the Covid-19 pandemic has cost us £7.5 million over the MTPF period, but that was before taking account of the latest lockdown, so it could end up costing us more. Central government has provided a one year financial settlement which means that we do not know what financial support we will get beyond 2021/22. This is really important because we get New Homes Bonus based on the number of houses built in the District. In 2021/22 we will get £5.3 million. As things stand by 2023/24 we will get zero. A very big hole in our budget appearing over 2 years. The government has also said they will review business rates; we have budgeted for an income of £3 million in 2021/22. The figures beyond that are our best estimates.
We have also lost income, we lost £2.6 million in 2020/21 and we have forecast to lose a further £5 million (approx.) over the MTPF period.
So, we have had to set a 2021/22 budget and an MTPF in extremely challenging circumstances.
Two items have saved us from having to make deeper cuts in services:
It should be unsurprising then that we have had to take some difficult decisions. Most will not need to be actioned until 2022/23 and beyond, but they demonstrate the impact of the savings we need to make. We hope the funding settlement in 2021 for the period beyond 2021/22 means that we will not have to implement all the projected savings. There is no guarantee that will be the case.
We are determined to take difficult decisions and not “kick the can down the road" and hope that something turns up. This we feel is responsible community leadership.
Even with all the actions that we have taken the MTFP shows a deficit of over £1 million in 2025/26. There may be yet more difficult decisions ahead.
Perhaps the most contentious decision we have taken is to withdraw the parking pass for pensioners. We are one of very few councils to provide this and there is a cost to providing the service. Where councils do provide the service there is a substantial charge. It may not be popular to say it, but many pensioners in our District are affluent and do not need a subsidy from the taxpayer.
Covid-19 has had a massive impact, the world has changed and we have to adapt to that changed world. There is no point pretending that we can keep supporting everything, which simply denies reality and stores up even more difficult decisions in future.
Our next challenge will be to support the regeneration of our local economy, and, in all honesty that is where I would commit any spare resources, effort and energy we have got. That will benefit all of us.